Tag Archives: Writing

The City & The City: a review

The further away I get from this book (I finished it a few weeks ago) the more I realize its gravity. I love this book. Love. It took me reading two more books, both tainted by their lack of being his, to recover my reading equilibrium; an equilibrium I’ll gladly sacrifice upon his next publication. I rehashed this review this last week, leaving in much self indulgence that I cut for size consideration – my original is on Unity Books’ website.

The City & The City by China Miéville

The geography of a city holds discrete realities for wildly diverse peoples. Many of these realities differ so dramatically it’s hard to reconcile their shared space – Do you see the same city as me? Which streets do you turn your gaze from? Which areas are fearfully skirted around or avoided altogether? There are entire sections of our urban topography that we not only ignore, but would deny knowledge of entirely: brothels, drug dens, parliament, high-class restaurants – pick the enclosure and align the bias. It’s an elision done easily, with a minimum of thought or reflection. But what if we applied our thinking strategically instead of tactically? What if we picked half a city and, with dedicated deliberation, unsaw them, edited them from our physical existence? There, but not. This is the realm China Miéville’s The City & The City explores to startling effect; it’s a novel drenched in originality and seething with powerful ideas.

Ostensibly a detective novel set in an imagined corner of Europe The City and The City plumbs the essence of physical and intellectual relationships. The eponymous dual city-state of Ul-Qoma and Besźel are intimately bound by history and territory, yet severed by law and the will of their respective inhabitants. It is an ethereal amputation difficult to describe; no walls or fences curtail the inhabitants, no watchtowers or searchlights guard against transgressions, yet incursions are swiftly and coldly punished by the inscrutable and all-powerful Breach, the nigh invisible agency that polices the divide. Contradictions abound in this byzantine setting as punitive force and civil complicity meet in a lovingly constructed artifice, one deeply laced with meaning.

On the Besźel side of this labyrinthine architecture Inspector Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad, investigates the murder of a woman, an assignment that appears routine but soon escalates in complexity. Borlú is drawn into a nexus of political, social and historical events that threaten not only the lives of those involved, but the cultural foundations that allow the coexistence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma. As the plot unfolds Miéville faithfully adheres to the genre rules of detective novels, not indulging easy cheats and always remaining loyal to the strictures and traditions that produce intriguing and compelling stories. And, regardless of concept, The City & The City would stand as a riveting and fully realised contribution to the crime oeuvre, but the beauty of this book is in the further steps taken: Miéville injects ideas into this novel that transform it into another beast altogether.

The core idea is the unique existence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma; cities whose citizens could, through tangled borders and shared streets, easily speak or touch. Their potential interactions are constrained by tradition and law. And Breach, the all-powerful agency that’s constrained by arcane points of law. But the twin populace doesn’t simply ignore the other, they unsee and unsense, editing their existence to enforce their belief. A lifetime of learned signifiers – in fashion, architecture, body language and myriad other cues – allows them to modify their social realities and impose segregation in an instant. They exclude all that isn’t right, comprehensively, removing persons and structures, cars and graffiti; unseeing through a remarkable perception.

It is a truly bizarre culture and place all the more powerful for the detail and reality Miéville imbues it with. A situation accepted like weather by those contained by it but baffling to those entering it – a difference the reader quickly comes to sympathise with. As the book unfolds it becomes clear that the central threat to Borlú and the Cities is, and always has been, existential; it lies in their un-knowledge and un-perception of each other. In order to solve the case Borlú must decipher the obscure boundaries of his cultural reality. Borlú must see not only Ul-Qoma, but also the liminal spaces that separate and define the Cities. He must see for the first time in his life and, with that sight, everything he knows will change.

The mindboggling actuality of the book is impossible to accept immediately, it takes complete submersion, one that is deceptively easy. Miéville creates a finely nuanced place that, as ridiculous as it should be, is real – the Cities breathe in the anomalous histories of Belfast, Jerusalem and Berlin and exhale a Siamese city that by comparison makes those places look whole. Melville understands how hard it is to comprehend the place and the concept and, wisely, doesn’t seek to remedy it with didactic asides or laboured exposition. Instead he allows the unfolding story to bring our perception and awareness of the Cities to a natural fruition – their dimensions wend into our brains unseen, until it’s as if they were always there.

The bipolar existence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma powers the plot, the beautifully crafted characters give it gravity, but the spirit of it lies in the interstices, the physical and metaphysical spaces between the cities. It is these gaps, the lacunae that define and challenge the accepted realities of the different locales, which baffle and intrigue the reader. Miéville challenges us to observe what we refuse to see, to draw out of our environs, both real and imagined, the discordant factors that vie for importance in our cities, countries and lives. This wonderful and enthralling novel does what so few others do: it makes us look upon our own places, spaces and interstices with fresh eyes, stripped of comfortable veils.

This book confirms Miéville as a seriously talented writer, one able at will to subvert genre and accepted wisdom with seemingly limitless gifts. In the dense jungle of literature, he is a predator, moving with power amongst established conventions, heedless of their place, before he usurps them, deconstructing them and making them serve his needs, purposes and vision. He produces, almost casually, what so few writers are capable of: originality.

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Atlas Shrugged (and I went and looked in a mirror)

If there is one thing that is easy to spot in Rand’s writing, it‘s the bad guys. In westerns they wear black clothes, in spy thrillers they have outlandish accents and in fantasy novels they’re often ninjas. In Randian novels they’re ‘visually compromised’. For example:

“His mouth was the part of him which he could not pull tight at any time; it was uncomfortably prominent in his lean face, attracting the eyes of any listener: when he spoke, the movement ran through his lower lip, twisting its moist flesh into extraneous contortions of its own.”

Or:

“…had vague features and a manner devoid of all emphasis… his only distinction seemed to be a bulbous nose, a bit to large for the rest of him.”

Sometimes she even fakes you out with a little misdirection:

“He was a large man with big, virile gestures; everything about his person was loudly full of life, except the small black slits of his eyes.”

Of course all her heroes are perfection itself, strong lines and chiseled features that reflect the majesty of their souls and philosophies. I’d throw some examples your way but they tend to drag on a bit. Suffice it to say that she kinda hammers the point home.

But it doesn’t end there, no sir. Even if you were blind to the descriptions you could hardly miss the names – her heroes, by and large, are deigned with strong, punchy, almost onomatopoeic names: Hank Reardon, Dagny Taggart, John Galt, Ragnar Danneskjold, Ken Danagger, and Ellis Wyat. While her bad guys, or anti-characters as I came to think of them, get the revealing likes of Wesley Mouch, Bertrum Scudder, Cuffy Meigs and Orren Boyle.

There are compromise names and names that could go either way, but those fall into a development process – like James Taggart, the douche brother of the heroine Dagny, whose name transforms depending on who he’s talking to or who is talking about him, Jim, Jimmy, James, as if he’s a Nothing Man whose meaning is defined by the regard of the characters surrounding him. Or Robert Stadler, the world bestriding scientist (apparently based on Oppenheimer), who was something of a ‘could have been’ that turned into the worst kind of sell-out. I think Stadler is her only attempt at some sort of middle ground – though it is a weak middle ground as his initial status comes purely from what he was, a great mind, rather than what he becomes, a total betrayer and apologist. Stadler never presents an argument of any substance, always becoming ‘furtive’ and evasive when confronted with Rand’s vision of Truth.

The names and physicality of her characters and anti-characters really emphasize an ever present devise of Rand’s, an intentional one I can only presume: the refusal to invest any argument, or representative of that argument, with any substance whatsoever. They are designed to fail. Something that grates the more it happens. It became harder and harder for me to take her arguments seriously due to her refusal to challenge them through the narrative with anything other than glass-jawed falsosophies. Rand’s refusal to trust the minds of her readers struck me as ironic in the worst way.

All of that said; the effects were impressive in many ways. I came to really admire her heroes, their manner, minds and comportment. And the power of her argument’s facets are often enthralling and attractive, though in the manner of a attractive jigsaw puzzle that you can reshape, on occasion, into pictures of antithetical meaning to the original. I’ve rarely come across something so beguiling and repulsive in equal measure. I thank various deities that I didn’t read this when I was twenty and loudly atheistic and logical, as I’m sure I would have adopted it as an outsourced morality and code of living. That would really have pushed me over the edge of assholedom.

Lets finish on a winner:

“Wesley Mouch had a long, square face and a flat topped skull, made more so by a brush haircut. His lower lip was a petulant bulb and the pale, brownish pupils of his eyes looked like the yolks of eggs smeared under the not fully translucent whites.”

Atlas Shrugged (while I tried not to heave)

I always get a shudder of revulsion when I see someone, especially those in their 20’s, reading the works of Ayn Rand. A reaction that I feel is totally understandable in its unreasonableness. It’s like making a judgment call on someone’s basic personal drives when you see them masturbating on public transport – it may be unfair, as you know not what inspecific tradgedies brought them to that point, but you’re sure as hell not going to get close enough to offer them a wet-wipe.

Despite these basic belief structures (if one may call them that), I find myself reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’, Rand’s ‘masterpiece’. A very good friend of mine recommended I give it a whirl as, regardless of Rand’s philosophies, her expression and ideas are fascinating in of themselves and have a remarkable adaptability if one isn’t weighed down with Randian hero worship beforehand. All of which, at my age, I should be able to read and understand without fear of some sort of meme-like contagion stripping my mind of all my current values and re-wallpapering it with new, shiny, Objectivist ones.

I’m actually a wee way into the 1000+ page behemoth and am finding it engrossing for all kinds of fucked up and sensible reasons. Many of which I think I will come back to on my first attempt to write an ongoing piece on this blog. Gotta say though, for a woman who was capable of saying a number of complex things in a clear and succinct manner, she sure can waffle on for pages and pages about the most trite stuff, I can totally understand various literary accusations of melodrama.

It would be fair to say I’m going into this with highly preconceived notions about Rand and Objectivism, but, hell, it’s always interesting to test one’s own ideas by bashing them repeatedly with someone else’s. And, in my case, when my world intersects with that of reality and the personal doubts and conflicts generated by that friction are surfacing more and more violently, I find it easier if I can anchor my thoughts and feelings on important matters by the land masses of other philosophies. I do wonder at the wisdom of choosing Ayn Rand… well, if I wake up a different and more Objectionable person at the end of this, just remember to blame Sara.

David Foster Wallace

I was told yesterday that David Foster Wallace is dead. He committed suicide, by hanging, on the 12th of September just passed. DFW was one of those writers that other writers want to be like; a crafter of thought and observation, someone who tries to express to be understood or explain, first, and next, if by consequence, there was beauty or profanity or wisdom, then something worthwhile had been written. But it had to be honest.

The day that followed was one that brought me back to thinking of him again and again. My favourite feeling of connection to DFW was tennis. He was a successful junior tennis player and that, presumably had granted him an insight into the professional side of the sport. This was best expressed in an essay contained in his book, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’. The essay was called, ‘Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness.’ and it is the single best piece of sports writing I have ever read. It doesn’t explain a point or a match. It doesn’t profile a particular event or delve into a quirk of history. It captures a context and meaning of an existence in a field of endeavour that demands commitment and skill and obsession at the cost of vestigial potentials. It is also damn funny. It actually offers understanding one would likely have never found on one’s own. This is a typical feature of DFW’s writing, in both his fiction and non-fiction.

There was an undeniable sadness to a lot of his writing, even when he was uproariously funny, a certain pain expressed through obsessive thinking. One of the first things that popped into my head was that he wasn’t able to think the pain away.

He is probably best known for his gargantuan novel, ‘Infinite Jest’. A work of fiction I have yet to finish, much to my shame. But I prefer his short non-fiction collections: ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’ and ‘Consider the Lobster’, it is here I’ve found his power of expression to connect with me best.

Here’s the article my friend Sally sent to me when she told me of his death, a wonderful piece of writing on Roger Federer as a religious experience that all tennis lovers can appreciate. I highly recommend finding something of DFW’s to read. I said to Sally in my return email that I had looked forward to reading him as an old man writer – he had always struck me as someone who would learn more and more as he aged. I had hoped he would tell me this secret knowledge, expressed so beautifully. Now I don’t like to think of what he must have learned. Infinite sadness.

Here’s a piece I found online about him and his death that I liked.

 

There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage. – DFW